Spring brings blooming lilacs

Monday, March 24, 2008 | 12:39 p.m. CDT; updated 5:52 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Tammy Bush

Lilacs have long been known for their lovely, long-lasting scent. These enduring ladies bloom in early spring for a few weeks, and often the aroma of their flowers can be caught on a breeze far from its original source. There are early-, mid- and late-blooming lilacs, and if you have the space for them all you can have lilacs blooming for six weeks or so.

Lilac means blue and originates from the Arabic “laylak” or Persian “nylac”.

In reality, it is more purple than blue. True blue, though greatly coveted for the garden, is fairly rare. The Greek name for the lilac is syrinx, which means pipe. The Turks made pipes out of these pithy stemmed plants.

The privet is from the same olive family, has flowers similar to the lilac and has been used as a root stock to graft lilacs. Unknowing gardeners have found that the grafted lilac has died and in its place a privet mysteriously has appeared.

Lilacs are old, solid anchors of the civilized world. Many times a farm house, porch or barn has crumbled into the earth but the lilac planted by the long-gone abode lives on.

The lilac tree grew in Vienna in 1562, having been imported from Turkey some time before. From there it spread wherever people began to travel and dates back to the mid-1750s in America. They were grown in our first botanical gardens, with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both having them planted on their properties. Since they live for hundreds of years, they could well be the original plants in those famous American gardens.

At the end of the 19th century, Victor Lemoine, a Frenchman, introduced double lilacs. These French lilacs are still very common in the states, but the Asian “Miss Kim” has surpassed its popularity this century.

According to the Gardener’s Network, Rochester, N.Y., is the lilac capital of the world. Highland Park has more than 500 varieties of lilacs and more than 1,200 lilac bushes in the parks 155 acres.

As of 2006, the lilac is New York state’s official bush.

Rochester, N.H., proclaims itself to be the “lilac city,” and the lilac is the state flower.

There are more than 1,000 varieties of lilacs, colored in many shades of purple, pink, white and double tones. They vary in size from 4 to 30 feet, so be sure you know what you are buying.

Lilacs are pretty hardy and easily cared for. They prefer full sun and elevated, well-drained soil. Lilacs transplant easily, the younger the better, though larger ones generally survive a transplant. It just takes more muscle and a bigger hole. Spring is the time you should transplant them and water well as you would any transplant the first several weeks.

You may lose the next year’s blooms, but the following year should return it to normal.

If they are not blooming well, it may be that lilacs have survived so long in that site, and trees have grown and shaded them. (Hence, the transplanting advice.) Lack of enough sun or poor drainage are the two worse culprits for a lilac not performing well.

If these are not the problem, try pruning. Cut out a third of the oldest branches from the ground up in the fall. You also might try root pruning. I’m not sure why, but sometimes it helps a plant to bloom more. Come out 2 feet from the shrub and, with a shovel, slice into the ground a foot deep, spacing a slice about every other foot around the shrub. This disengages some of the roots from the plant, encouraging new root growth.

If a lilac dies or you prune it back you can burn their branches and enjoy the sweet fragrance one last time.

Tammy Bush has been a master gardener of four years. She has been a pediatric nurse and educator, but now works from home as chauffeur to her two teenage sons. Two cats and a husband round out her life. When she isn’t driving she runs a quilting business, putters in her gardens and likes do-it-yourself yard and home projects. Shade gardening, recycling and Japanese gardens are a few of her favorite things. She can be reached at

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